How can Allah punish people while being the Most Merciful?

Allah has the names Ar-Rahman and Ar-Raheem which are often translated as Most Merciful and Most Compassionate. They both signify Allah’s attribute of mercy.

Allah describes Himself in the Quran as “the most merciful of the merciful” (7:151), and He says, “My mercy encompasses all things.” (7:156)

Knowing all this, how is it possible for Allah to punish people in Hell? Isn’t Hell the opposite of mercy?

How is Allah Merciful?

Mercy is when you benefit an undeserving person or reduce a punishment for them. If someone is given a blessing when he did nothing to earn it, that is mercy. If someone is delayed punishment when he doesn’t deserve this delay, that is mercy.

Allah is Extremely Merciful and Most Merciful. This is a very large topic and a lot can be written on it. But, let us look at what it means from two perspectives.

Firstly, Allah is “Extremely” Merciful because He gives humans more blessings than they can even count. He also gives them access to guidance so they can know the path to Jannah which is even greater blessing. They deserve none of this, yet Allah gives them.

Secondly, Allah is the “Most” Merciful because He objectively gives people more mercy than anyone else gives them. You have air to breathe, water to drink, and food to eat. All of this came from Allah. All of it is undeserved. In this objective sense, Allah is the most merciful of anyone who is merciful, because no one gives as much mercy as him to any person.

Even when Allah punishes, it is preceded by mercy. Allah sends messengers to guide people to the straight path. He promises people reward beyond imagination to bring them to good. When they disobey, he gives them time to rethink and repent. He accepts repentance easily. A person just needs to turn to Allah seeking forgiveness. But, most people disobey even after that. Punishment is given only after all of that.

That is why even when Allah decides to punish, that doesn’t take away from the fact that He is the merciful.

Does Allah being Ar-Rahman imply that He is always merciful to every single person unconditionally?

Obviously not. Allah can choose to punish people instead of forgiving the punishment. This is the situation of the people of Hell.

Justice is not the opposite of mercy. Punishment in Hell is not a negation of mercy. The true opposite of mercy is cruelty which is giving people bad when they don’t deserve it. Allah is never cruel. Allah said: “I have made oppression forbidden upon myself.” (Sahih Muslim)

Giving justice is neutral, neither adding nor subtracting from the total mercy given to a person. Hell is justice, not cruelty.

Imagine you give someone a chocolate bar. Then, for an hour you neither give him good or bad. Have you been merciful to this person overall? Most people would agree that you were merciful to this person because not giving anything for an hour was neutral and does not add or subtract from mercy.

Neutrality is justice by definition. Justice is to give someone what he deserves. This person did not deserve anything from you (neither good nor bad), so you gave him justice for an hour. This justice did not detract from that fact you were merciful overall.

It is the same with people in Hell. Hell is justice and does not detract from any mercy. Allah was merciful to them because they received countless blessings in this world along with guidance.

Question: What does it mean when Allah says “My mercy encompasses all things” if it doesn’t encompass the people in Hell?

Allah says, “My punishment – I afflict with it whom I will, but My mercy encompasses all things. So I will decree it [especially] for those who fear Me and give zakah and those who believe in Our verses.” (7:156) The verse mentions punishment in the very same sentence.

We can have two understandings of the verse:

  1. Mercy covers everything until Allah decides to punish on the Day of Judgement. The punished people are removed from mercy, and mercy on that day is only the believers who fear Allah and worship Him.
  2. Even though Allah punishes whomever He decides, everyone including the punished are covered in Allah’s mercy. I explained before how Allah can be considered merciful even to the people of Hell.

Either way, the purpose of the verse is not to say the people in Hell will get mercy letting them leave Hell.

Question: If I don’t want people to be punished in Hell, does that make me more merciful than God?

You neither have the power or authority to prevent people from being punished in Hell. So, it doesn’t matter what you would do if you hypothetically had power. We don’t care about hypothetical scenarios. Allah is most merciful objectively, not hypothetically.

In other words, Allah being Most Merciful is not about whether someone can think up hypothetical scenarios of being more merciful.

Another way to see the problem in this question is to realize that, if Allah needed to be more merciful than any hypothetical scenario one could think of, the logical end is that Allah should always be maximally merciful. That is obviously absurd. Mercy is blessing Allah chooses to give freely. Allah is not forced. Allah could give more or less if He wanted. He is under no obligation to give the most mercy imaginable.

Allah knows best.

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